DEC 20, 2023
Tether fueling Cambodia’s dark economy despite ban
Despite being officially prohibited for trade in Cambodia, Tether (USDT), the leading USD stablecoin, has been found to be integrated into the Southeast Asian nation’s shadow economy.
That’s according to a report published by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Sunday. The publication cites security experts, who it claims have highlighted the pivotal role of USDT, emphasizing its low fees and unrestricted capability to expedite the movement, concealment and laundering of money.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s November seizure of nearly $9 million traced to over 70 victims of online scams underscored Tether’s involvement. Collaborating with Tether Holdings and the crypto trading platform OKX, the investigation identified assets linked to “pig butchering” cyber scams in Southeast Asia, freezing an additional $225 million. While specific details regarding the origin of these assets remained undisclosed, Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, has emerged as a hub for money laundering related to online gaming and cyber scams.
Cybersecurity expert Ngo Minh Hieu from the Vietnamese government’s National Cyber Security Centre warned of the susceptibility of cryptocurrencies to scams and Ponzi schemes, particularly targeting less informed investors. This heightened risk has spurred a surge in money laundering and online scams, leading to a spike in arrests.
Official line versus reality
In many jurisdictions, the official line taken on cryptocurrency and digital assets doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality. China clamped down on crypto trading and mining a number of years ago. Despite that, a Wall Street Journal investigation earlier this year found that global crypto exchange Binance had a thriving China-centric business.
The same seems to be true in Cambodia with respect to its official ban on crypto. Owners of both physical and online crypto exchanges in Phnom Penh openly admit to providing a parallel financial service in the developing economy. The prevalence of neon signs advertising exchange rates in Chinese yuan for USDT underscores the widespread usage of Tether in the region, particularly within Cambodia’s dark economy.
Critics chime in
News of the illicit use of Tether in Cambodia has prompted a response from long-standing critics of the company. Tether’s harshest critic has been a pseudo-anonymous persona on the X platform with the username “Bitfinex’ed.” That account wrote:
”Tether. The choice for organized crime & criminals. Giancarlo Devasini once said, ‘We’re going to have to learn to bank like criminals.’”
Despite its role in facilitating illicit activities, the extent of Tether’s penetration into Cambodia’s economy remains challenging to ascertain. Globally, approximately 84 billion USDT is in circulation, with banks, exchanges and platforms flourishing, leveraging social media and encrypted channels to advertise seamless and reliable digital solutions for money flow challenges.
One such platform, Huione Pay, operates in a bank-like setting, engaging customers in discussions about USDT exchange options. A closer look at Huione’s publicly available USDT exchange activities reveals insights into Tether’s role in enabling transactions within Cambodia.
Some conversations in Chinese seek “pure white assets,” indicating funds from legitimate sources, while others do not request such provenance. These exchanges also advertise products and services crucial to scam operators, such as the sale of SIM cards from different countries.